Why is temporary injustice bearable?

In my last post, I argued that being required to pay rent to a private entity for housing is an injustice. However, as I was thinking about it, I couldn’t help but think of examples were rent is justified, or perhaps just a bearable injustice. Consider, for instance, travel accommodations—hotels, hostels, B&Bs. A person travelling to another city to attend a conference, or a wedding, or to perform, will, in many cases have to rent a room for the duration of their stay. This, according to my reasoning, could be considered an injustice, but few people would agree that the hotelier-guest relationship is the same as the landlord-tenant relationship. Or consider a longer-term rental—a person who moves to a city and, rather than buying a new home sight-unseen, opts to rent an apartment while they house-hunt. Again, my reasoning says that this is an injustice, but definitely a bearable one. Or perhaps a young academic is hired for, say, a two-year position in a city far from their home. In all likelihood signing a two-year lease will be less of a burden than buying a home only to have to sell it in two years.

Dietmar Rabich / Wikimedia Commons / “Amboy (California, USA) — 2012 — 4” / CC BY-SA 4.0

If rent is unjust, why is it bearable if it’s temporary? Or perhaps it’s only unjust when it’s a permanent situation.

Or consider a slightly more recognized injustice: wage labour. In his book Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men, historian Eric Foner writes about the early development of the Republican Party in the mid-19th century. Most people familiar with US history are aware that the early Republican Party was anti-slavery, few people know that it was also anti-wage-labour. In fact, many Americans, including Frederick Douglass, considered wage labour to be not that different from slavery. Wage labour existed prior to the mid-1800s, as did the opinion that it was not that different from slavery—the wikipedia article on “wage slavery” notes that Cicero expressed this opinion—but something had happened so that a political party could be successful by being against wage labour. What happened was the industrial revolution. Previously, wage labour was mostly confined to farm-hands or apprentices. This situation was acceptable because it was understood that a farm-hand or an apprentice would save their wages to buy their own plot of land or workshop, thus becoming their own boss. The industrial revolution changed this. It was completely unreasonable to expect a factory girl to save up her wages to buy her own mill. The industrial revolution made wage labour permanent. So, wage labour wasn’t unjust enough to mobilize people, but permanent wage labour was so odious that resistance to it propelled a new political party to the White House.

Again, we have an injustice that is bearable when temporary, and unbearable when permanent. Why?

I don’t have a good answer, so the rest of this post is mostly me just thinking out loud.

What do you think?

It’s not that it’s temporary, it’s a means to an end

When we consider the temporary situations above, we can see that they are also all, a means to an end. You stay in a hotel so that you can attend a friend’s wedding. Someone new to a city rents an apartment so that they can properly look for a house to buy. An apprentice submits to an artisan so that she can become an artisan herself. Perhaps these situations are bearable because we can view them as a means to an end and temporariness is just a by-product.

Consider the following as corroboration:

  • Suppose the government instituted a new program: Every citizen’s first home will have to be a rental. They pay market rent to a private landlord for 8 years. After the 8 years are up, they are granted ownership of a home.
    • The most obvious objection to this would be to question why you would have to pay rent for 8 years. If you’re going to be granted property anyway, why not just skip the 8 years and start with the property.
    • This policy would become slightly more palatable if a portion of your rent went towards the property. That is if it changed from an arbitrary requirement to a means to an end.
    • Conclusion: An arbitrary, but temporary injustice is less bearable than a means to an end.

The bearable temporary situations are sometimes more brutal than the unbearable permanent situations.

There are still some vestiges of the old apprenticeship system today. The two that spring to mind are the restaurant business and academia. At the top of these sectors are highly respected professionals—chefs and professors—who have a degree of independence not widely found in the rest of society. But at the bottom you find people working highly demanding jobs for low pay and little esteem. As a grad student, my work and studies had the tendency to occupy my entire life. If a regular waged job did the same, I wouldn’t have tolerated it.

Hotel guests surrender a amount of privacy that no tenant would willingly surrender. If I knew my landlord was entering my apartment when I was out, or monitoring my internet usage and TV watching habits, I’d be tempted to take legal action.

The contrast between temporary and permanent is not well understood.

As philosophers and poets like to stress everything in this world is temporary. Buildings collapse, empires fade, everyone dies. Despite this, we still seem to innately divide entities, situations, states, and eventualities into permanent and temporary. A camp is a temporary settlement, while a town is permanent. Visiting is temporary, residing is permanent. A US War in Afghanistan is temporary, US rule in Afghanistan is permanent. What does it even mean to be temporary or permanent?

Maybe even these temporary injustices shouldn’t be bearable

In his book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, anthropologist David Graeber writes about the apprenticeship system in the pre-industrial anglosphere. Under this system, a male child of a certain age would be sent by his parents to apprentice with a master. The child would become part of the master’s houshold, meaning he would be expelled from his childhood household. Eventually, the apprentice would become a journeyman, get married, start a household of his own, and be considered an adult. Graeber points out that such a system was peculiar to the northwestern Europe and that southern European observers were shocked with the barbarity with which, say, English parents treated their children. In Italy, by contrast, adulthood wasn’t achieved through such arduous means. Young men spent their youth socializing until they decided to start working for themselves. So, maybe even the temporary wage labour of pre-industrial times was bad.

Similar things can be said about temporary rent. In many of the cases I cited above, we could think of a way of meeting these needs without charging rent. In most cases this could be achieved by some system of reciprocal hospitality. We often hear that one of the great virtues of some of the poorest agrarian societies was hospitality. I always heard that in Ireland, it used to be the case that if a traveller showed up on your doorstep, you would take them in and share your meager food with them. Such hospitality is still the norm in some sectors of society. Hospitality is generally expected of friends and family. Grad students often offer “crash-space” to visiting grad students. Same goes for many musicians.

Note, these are all quite informal, but it’s not hard to imagine how they might be formalized. I, for instance, am a member of a labour union (CUPE 3902). Suppose my union created reciprocal agreements with similar unions in other areas, such that if I was travelling through those areas, my union’s partner union would provide me with lodging and if a member of a partner union travelled here, we would provide them with lodging. Or suppose hospitality was made a municipal service, paid for by residents of a town or city, so visitors or new residents would not need to rent a hotel or hostel room in a city that wasn’t their own. I don’t think these are utopian ideas. In fact, I’d wager that if you looked, you’d find many historical precedents for them.